Hamilton’s Bungled NHL Bid

In light about my recent article about elitism in Canada,  particularly explaining why Hamilton  does not have an NHL team,  it is appropriate to remember how Hamilton lost its best chance to get into the NHL in 1990.  Hamilton had been hungry to get into the NHL since the start of the 1980s, the heyday of NHL expansion into Canada.  The NHL and WHA had merged in 1980, bringing Quebec, Edmonton, and Winnipeg into the league.  The next year, the Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary.  Of the nine major Canadian cities, only Hamilton and Ottawa did not have an NHL team.

Hamilton, located midway between the NHL franchises of Toronto and Buffalo had no problem with a fan base. In 1980, Hamilton, like Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa, Quebec City and Winnipeg had a population between 500,000 and 700,000. Hamilton may have had the smallest municipal population but it had the best regional market of all six cities. A Hamilton NHL franchise could draw fans from as far east as Mississauga, as far south as Niagara Falls and St. Catharines, as far north as Owen Sound, and as far west as London. Besides the towns just named, the region included Guelph, Kitchener, Oakville, Burlington, Brantford and many other mid-size towns and cities as well.

The only stumbling blocks were an arena and ownership. In 1985, the arena problem was solved when Hamilton built the 17,000 seat Copps Coliseum. Its intention was obvious. Though it would be a money-maker hosting other events, the prime gain was to be an NHL team. Hamilton put its feet up and waited for the next NHL expansion and a suitable owner to appear.

In 1987, Hamilton got its first hockey reward. Most of the 1987 Canada Cup, including the final game would be played in Hamilton. It proved to an overwhelming success, with enthusiastic sellout crowds. Many times, the cameras would spot placards in the crowds, addressed to the NHL and President John Ziegler, to award Hamilton an NHL franchise. For that tournament, Hamilton was the center of hockey in Canada. It seemed the logical place to put a new NHL team.

In 1989, the waiting seemed to be coming to an end. The NHL planned to expand by seven teams before the year 2000. The first expansion would be in 1992 and Ziegler and the NHL Board were not adverse to putting more teams in Canada. Hamilton recruited a suitable potential owner, Tim Donut, headed by Ron Joyce. The NHL announced its terms, the most important being a $50 million expansion fee. In light of the recent $500 million expansion fee, the $50 million one in 1990 would have the same effect. In 2016, the $500 million fee would come across as an unrealistic price for an NHL team. Of the 16 potential applicants, only fanatical Las Vegas and Quebec would see it through to the end. In 1990, with the recent sale of the Minnesota North Stars for only $31.5 million, the $50 million fee gave off the same impression. The final payment would be due by the end of 1991 with the team to start playing in 1992.

The NHL received 11 bids from 10 cities, including both Hamilton and Ottawa. Other candidates were from Tampa Bay, Seattle, San Diego, Milwaukee, St. Petersburg, Phoenix, Miami, and Houston. Many cities dropped out without even making a presentation to the NHL. Hamilton, along with St. Petersburg were supposedly the front-running cities. But the NHL rejected them along with Miami because the bidders wanted to alter the payment schedule. The NHL was adamant. Pay the way we want you to pay or you don’t get a team. They refused to consider any negotiations. Ron Joyce and the others considered this to be poor business sense and reluctantly dropped out. Thus disappeared Hamilton’s best chance to get an NHL team. Like Quebec and Las Vegas, a quarter of a century later, only fanatical Ottawa and Tampa Bay agreed to all of the NHL terms, particularly the payment schedule. And neither of them had a suitable arena built at the time.

Looking back, there were several other good reasons to put a team into Ottawa instead of Hamilton. Ottawa, Edmonton, and Calgary would dramatically grow in population to over 1 million residents while Hamilton, Quebec City, and Winnipeg stagnated. And like with the NHL franchise in Washington which bought some political goodwill from the American government, putting a team in Ottawa bought the NHL goodwill from the Canadian government.

In recent years, the wall of opposition to a Hamilton team has grown. Buffalo and Toronto want extensive compensation if a Hamilton or other southern Ontario team is created. There has never been a suitable formula worked out like there has been in New York and Los Angeles. Thus one of the best markets in Canada and one of the best arenas (Which the city of Hamilton is willing to renovate with ironically $50 million to a more than adequate 18,500 seats), along with Quebec City has no NHL team. Attempts to move the questionable Phoenix Coyotes to Hamilton by Jim Balsille were doomed to failure.

But if Hamilton had been given a team in 1990, would Ottawa have a team now too? My guess is yes. Ottawa was one of the fastest growing cities in Canada and then there is the advantage of buying political goodwill. As would be proved, Ottawa with a proper arena and suitable owner would be a matter of time. But there should be eight Canadian franchises in the NHL right now, not seven. Hamilton was and is a perfect choice. But it lost its best chance to join the NHL again in 1990, and given the fact that the NHL caters extensively to its monopolistic Canadian franchise owners, a new Hamilton team is not even on the horizon.

 

The NHL Has Never Reined In Its Canadian Franchise Owners

In the many articles I have written on this blog and others about why Canada has only 7 NHL franchises,  mostly focusing in on the current Quebec problem,  I have frequently mentioned the problem of elitism in Canada.  I have written that this is not just an NHL problem but taints almost all aspects of life in Canada and has been present through all its history.    New France was an elitist society and so were the early Loyalist settlements.  In 1837, two rebellions broke out in Canada against oligarchic government.

In my own personal experience, there was seldom a job situation in Canada that was not tainted by elitism where somebody was picking on somebody else and making other people’s lives miserable. The ugliest incident in my own lifetime would be the suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons, tormented by others who considered her “not one of them”. Elitism is deeply ingrained in Canada.

And it is probably the main reason why there are only 7 NHL franchises in Canada. The current situation with the prospective Quebec City owner is only indirectly tainted with elitism. It has more to do with Pierre Karl Peladeau making enemies on the NHL Board by his politics, his inappropriate racial remarks, and his obstructionist business actions.

However, elitism is more evident when explaining why there is no other southern Ontario team besides the Toronto Maple Leafs, located in either another part of Toronto, Hamilton, Kitchener, London, or Oshawa. Toronto (and Buffalo) refuses to share the rich southern Ontario market with anyone else. New York and Los Angeles can work out their differences, settle suitable compensation and operate more than one NHL franchise. So can similar situations in MLB, the NBA, and the NFL. But implacable Toronto refuses to share, so one of the best potential NHL franchises in Canada, Hamilton, whose city council is willing to spend $50 million to renovate its current arena to a more than acceptable 18,500 seats and more luxury boxes, never gets a team.

And this situation points to one other problem: Toronto and other Canadian franchise owners are allowed to dictate NHL policy to the detriment of Canada. It has been that way since the first expansion back in 1967. Before that year, it was announced that the NHL would double in size from 6 to 12 teams and there was lots of speculation about which cities would get a team. In Canada it was almost taken for granted that Vancouver which was the third largest city in Canada behind Montreal and Toronto would be one of the cities. But when the cities were finally revealed and Canadians found out that the expected Vancouver franchise had become St. Louis, there were howls of outrage right across the country. What got little publicity was that the franchise owners of Toronto and Montreal did not want to share Canadian television money and were decisive in preventing Vancouver from joining the league. Vancouver would get its team in the next expansion three years later but the pattern and precedent had been set. Canadian NHL franchise owners would oppose Canadian cities and prevent them from joining the NHL.

Two years later other wealthy Canadians pondering Vancouver’s fate, decided to try something different. Instead of trying to join the NHL they decided to compete with it. So they joined with American partners to start a rival league, the WHA. The future NHL franchises of Quebec, Edmonton, and Winnipeg were born. The WHA owners had to have a different attitude to Canadian teams and Canadian expansion because their most successful franchises were in Canada and the very survival of the league depended on the Canadian market. So there was no opposition to adding more Canadian teams. At various times, Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, and Ottawa had WHA franchises. There was even a Canadian division set up.

But the competition between the WHA and the NHL caused salaries and costs to escalate and talks began to merge the leagues. There was opposition in the NHL to merging the leagues and is it significant who the opponents were. On the NHL Board, the leaders were Toronto Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard, and ex-Canadian Jack Kent Cooke, the owner of the Los Angeles Kings. Montreal, owned by Molson Breweries did not want to share the province of Quebec market with Quebec City. So merging the leagues kept being defeated until fans in Quebec took matters into their own hands and initiated a boycott of Molson beer. That ended the opposition of Montreal and the opponents of the merger were outvoted at last.

In later years, Calgary and then Ottawa which snatched a bungled Hamilton bid, were granted teams, the only times (with the exception of the transfer of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg) when Canadian cities got franchises smoothly and without obstruction.

And all through these years during which Canadian NHL franchise owners opposed the creation of new Canadian NHL teams behind closed doors, the Canadian hockey public took comfort and refuge behind a Canadian created myth; that the NHL was anti-Canadian. They believed that the large number of American franchise owners, led by John Ziegler and Gary Bettman were conspiring to keep Canadian franchises to a minimum. And of course the Canadian franchise owners were happy to let Canadians believe this myth which got them off the hook.

Actually it would not be surprising to discover that Gary Bettman was specifically hired to keep the existing monopoly for the Canadian franchise owners. He is merely carrying out a policy that the Canadian members of the NHL Board prescribed for him. They do not want to share Canadian television money and they do not want other Canadian franchises to move into their markets. So there is no Hamilton team and probably there will be opposition to a second Montreal and Saskatchewan team for these reasons.

Even if there really is a block of anti-Canadian American owners, their opposition has counted for nothing. All they have to do is put their feet up and let their Canadian franchise partners do the job for them. But the existence of such a group is highly unlikely. As for Bettman, he initiated the return of Winnipeg and Quebec back in 2010 by making a tour and offering them reasonable terms for a returned team (no mention of a $500 million entry fee back then). And recently after being shown the wonders of the newly built Rogers Place in Edmonton, he is already raving that Edmonton should get a future All-star game and be the chosen arena for a future NHL draft, hardly the actions of someone who is supposed to be anti-Canadian.

If the NHL can be accused of anything, it can be that it has let its Canadian franchise owners dictate league policy to the detriment of NHL growth in Canada. The American owners are not anti-Canadian, just indifferent. What Bettman should be saying, even dictating, is that Toronto and Buffalo work out a suitable compensation package like what was done in New York and Los Angeles so that Hamilton can join the league. And once it is settled, apply the same deal to Montreal and Saskatchewan and any other potential Canadian expansion site as well.

The main reason there are not more Canadian NHL teams is because the NHL will not or cannot control its Canadian franchise monopolists. As long as they are allowed to control policy, NHL Canadian franchise growth is going to be stunted. But these franchise owners are merely following the elitist policy that has been around in Canada since the beginning of its history. It is ironic that Canada, the second largest country in area on Earth has no room for so many people and enterprises whom its elitist cliques have deemed unsuitable to them.

 

2016-17 NHL Second Playoff Round Predictions

I think in future I’ll stop making Stanley Cup winner predictions at the beginning of the first round because I am being made a fool of. The last two years, the team I have picked to win it all has been ingloriously eliminated easily in the first round by upstart, underdog, longshots. Last year it was the Los Angeles Kings and this year even more shockingly, the Chicago Blackhawks. I have to learn to keep my mouth and pen shut at times. Still I can accurately recap the previous round and explain who, both players and teams, won and lost big. Despite the Chicago debacle, I still went 6-2 in the opening round, so I suppose I know at least a little about what is going on.

Biggest Winners: Players (And Coaches)

In no particular order…

1. Randy Carlyle

A few years ago, I protested on another blog, in which would be my last article, that Carlyle was a good coach who should not have been fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs who were (and may still be) paying for the horrid ownership of the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund. The Anaheim sweep of Calgary gives me some vindicated satisfaction and reason to gloat. Carlyle took a team that was choking under mediocre playoff coach Bruce Boudreau, steadied them down the last part of the regular season where they overtook San Jose, beat off Edmonton, and won their division. Now they beat Calgary in a tough, but convincing series. With the elimination of Chicago, Carlyle’s Ducks have to be the new favorite in the Western Conference.

2. Marc Andre Fleury

Fleury’s erratic playoff goaltending was a major reason the Pittsburgh Penguins did not win more Stanley Cups during the Crosby-Malkin era since their first cup in 2009. With the victorious switch to Matt Murray last year, it seemed that Fleury’s career in Pittsburgh was over, even whether ANYBODY would want him at the end of this season. The victory over Columbus at least makes him marketable to somebody next year who wants to upgrade their goaltending and might be willing to take a chance on him.

3. Henrik Lundqvist

Lundqvist still has to be able to win the big one, but he can take some satisfaction of beating Carey Price, the World Cup and Olympic Gold Medal winning goaltender, but who has a horrid NHL playoff record. That is what is maddening about Lundqvist. He is too unpredictable and inconsistent. He can beat quality opponents like Montreal this time and then let in goals at the wrong time like he did against the two hybrids, Europe and North America in the World Cup which put Sweden out of the money. He has never been consistent enough to take New York all the way. But he can take some quiet satisfaction from this victory.

4. Mike Yeo

Yeo became coach of the Minnesota Wild, kept getting them into the post season, but watched while management, particularly General Manager Chuck Fletcher, did nothing to improve the team so that it could go farther in the playoffs. Of course that led to his inevitable firing. So it must have been particularly satisfying to take over the St. Louis Blues, a team that lost talent in the off season, who then traded their star defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk so that they could start concentrating on rebuilding, to get them into the playoffs in spite of the significant talent losses, and then eliminate his old team without too much trouble, the same old Wild whom Fletcher refuses to significantly improve.

Biggest Losers: Players (And Coaches)

1. Carey Price

Price should stick to international play where he has won the Olympics and the World Cup. But in the Stanley Cup playoffs, he has a horrid record. Ironically in the World Cup Final, he beat his old teammate, Jaroslav Halak who took Montreal deeper into the Stanley Cup playoffs than Price has ever done. There was some debate about who should have been traded and who should have been kept, and these two recent episodes are going to revive it. Price, like Ovechkin and company in Washington, has never ever made it even to the Eastern Conference Final. That he lost to Henrik Lundqvist, a goaltender with a similar puzzling record is not going to help his reputation.

2. Bruce Boudreau and Chuck Fletcher

Boudreau, the unremarkable playoff coach, added another notch to his unremarkable playoff record when Minnesota humiliatingly lost in only five games to underdog St. Louis which had lost significant talent in the off season and then traded its best defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk, to make it easy to be defeated. When Minnesota hired Boudreau (saving Calgary and Ottawa from making the same mistake), I wrote an article saying that it was a marriage made in heaven: The mediocre Minnesota Wild who can never beat a true playoff contender hiring a mediocre playoff coach who can never beat a true playoff contender. As I predicted, it turned out to be the perfect match.

But the real goat horns should belong to General Manager Chuck Fletcher who hired Boudreau in the first place. That Minnesota lost to its old coach, Mike Yeo, rubs it in further. A few years ago, Fletcher got free agents, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, patted himself on the back and said that was enough to make Minnesota a Stanley Cup Champion. But as mentioned above, they are good enough to get Minnesota into the playoffs, beat weak playoff teams, and nothing more. Fletcher has never added any significant talent since then to take Minnesota higher. In Buffalo, owner Terry Pegula ordered a review of the team from top to bottom after the Sabres missed the playoffs again. This led to the firing of both the general manager and the coach. The same thing should be done in Minnesota which keeps spinning its wheels under Fletcher’s management.

Biggest Winners: Teams

1. Nashville Predators

It goes without saying that the Predators fashioned the biggest upset in the first round, maybe even in the entire playoffs. All this by a team that nearly did not make the playoffs themselves and only with a late surge of good hockey grabbed the last playoff position. For a while P.K. Subban whom the Predators got in the big trade of last year, must have been playing with a bag over his head when the Predators were out of a playoff position and his old team, Montreal, was leading the Eastern Conference. Many NHL expert predictors at NHL.com were contemplating suicide because they picked the Predators to be in the Stanley Cup Final. Now a totally unexpected sweep of a recent 3 time Stanley Cup champion, a team they had never beaten in the playoffs before, including two consecutive shutouts on enemy ice has to make everyone rethink yet again about this most puzzling of teams. Are they finally the team the experts predicted they would be? Whatever happens later, they have won the biggest playoff series in their history and have been the most impressive team in the first round.

2. St. Louis Blues

The Blues lost significant talent in the off season, fired Stanley Cup winning coach, Ken Hitchcock who got them to the Eastern Conference Final last year, and then traded top defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. They seemed to be ripe for the picking, intent on rebuilding their team and giving themselves salary cap space. Instead they rallied behind new coach Mike Yeo, made the playoffs, and have now eliminated Minnesota easily despite all the talent losses. Right now they are enjoying an unexpected bonus.

Biggest Losers: Teams

1. Chicago Blackhawks

This team must be in total shock. Favored to win the Western Conference, if not the Stanley Cup itself, it was ignominiously sent packing in the minimum four games including two shameful shutouts on home ice by an underdog, longshot team of upstarts. A year ago, I wrote an article about Chicago letting one of its core players, Patrick Sharp, go because of salary cap reasons. I put forth the theory that Sharp was the kind of player who would get a goal in the playoffs just when Chicago needed it the most and Chicago would get a spark and go on to victory. They certainly needed Sharp or somebody like him in this round. But whether Sharp would have been enough against Nashville is debatable. They were beaten convincingly. The Blackhawks brought back Johnny Oduya and he had a horrid series. But what is really disturbing was that none of the new, young players whom Chicago had brought in and were developing stepped up. There were no young Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kanes, Duncan Keiths, or Brent Seabrooks eager to make a name for themselves in the playoffs. That is not good for the future of this team.

2. Columbus Blue Jackets

I have gone over this in finer detail in a previous article, but Columbus had to win a playoff round for attendance reasons. Actually they should be proud and satisfied with the best year of their team’s history and not worry because they lost to Pittsburgh who may well win the Stanley Cup again. But Columbus plays in a region where top level, professional hockey is unpopular, so they were playing for attendance improvement and the very future of the franchise. Unfortunately they got the worst playoff match-up they could possibly get. Even playing first place, playoff choking Washington would have been better. They HAD to win their series, no matter who their opponent was. Normally, a team that did what Columbus did this season should forget this defeat and look forward to next year. But this playoff defeat did nothing to improve attendance, undid whatever good the team accomplished during the regular season, and the possibility of relocation still haunts this team.

3. Minnesota Wild

One of the two perpetual wheel spinners (Washington is the other one) who never do anything significant in the playoffs. This is because management has never added any significant new talent since Minnesota got Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Now they have lost to lowly, underdog St Louis and their old coach, Mike Yeo. This is the lowest playoff blow so far. This is a mediocre team, with a mediocre coach, a mediocre general manager, and maybe mediocre ownership if it refuses to shake up this team that perpetually goes nowhere.

Teams That Can Go Home Happy

Toronto, Boston, and Calgary can go home glad that they got back in the playoffs and build on what they accomplished this year and look forward to taking the next stepping stone next season. Columbus would be on this list except for the attendance problems mentioned above. And Montreal will publicly proclaim they are happy to be on this list but secretly will be cursing because Nashville advanced (see below).

Players With The Pressure Still On Them

1, 2, 3

Alexander Ovechkin, Brooks Orpik, Braden Holtby

As mentioned in the article about the first round predictions, it is not enough for Washington to win one playoff round. The absolute minimum that is acceptable for Washington is to make it to the Eastern Conference Final. These players (and Nicklas Backstrom could also be added to this list) have been the core of the Washington failure for the past decade. Now they have even more pressure on them because management added T J Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk the last two years. They are all getting older and if they prove yet again that they are not good enough, it should be time to consider trading them and go in a new direction.

4 Henrik Lundqvist

He passed his first test and put doubts about the Stanley Cup career of Montreal goaltender, Carey Price. Now he faces Craig Anderson of Ottawa who will be just as tough an opponent. But Anderson has been playing for inferior playoff teams, not Stanley Cup contenders like Lundqvist so he does not have the same pressure. Lundqvist’s goaltending will be scrutinized if New York loses and he is a major reason for the defeat.

Teams With The Pressure Still On Them

It goes without saying that the Washington Capitals remain the team that has to win the next round which they have never done during the Ovechkin era. No other team has the same amount of pressure on them though that could change if certain other teams do not do well this round too. At least Washington has gone farther than their western cousins in Minnesota who have a similar sorry stagnant record in the playoffs.

The Last Laugh

At one time, P. K. Subban was playing with a bag over his head while his old team, the Montreal Canadiens was leading the Eastern Conference, the person he was traded for, Shea Weber was flourishing, and the general manager, Marc Bergevin, was taking well earned bows for his bold trade that propelled the Canadiens higher; while his new team, the Nashville Predators were out of a playoff position, playing bad hockey, and seemed unlikely to make the post season. But now the Predators have scored their biggest playoff victory ever, eliminating 3 time Stanley Cup champion and one of the two favorites to win this year, Chicago Blackhawks in the minimum four games, while the Canadiens, who had home ice advantage lost to the New York Rangers. There is going to be bitterness in Montreal every time their fans have to watch Nashville continue to play in the current playoffs while their team is on the sidelines. Bergevin can say that he improved Montreal and that they made the playoffs instead of choking like last year, but this is not a result he will enjoy watching. It now puts his job as general manager under an unwelcome spotlight.

Revenge

Alain Vigneault, coach of the New York Rangers defeated Claude Julien, coach of the Montreal Canadiens who had beaten him in the Stanley Cup Final in 2011. But how many Vancouver fans wish that Vigneault had won back then and lost this time instead?

Honorable mention: Mike Yeo eliminating his old team Minnesota fairly easily in a humiliating manner. There is going to be bitterness in Minnesota because of this.

Oh Canada

Ottawa and Edmonton made it to the next round after beating American teams. Believe it or not, this has been the first time a Canadian city has beaten an American city in the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2014.

Stanley Cup Playoff Predictions

Eastern Conference

Ottawa Senators Vs. New York Rangers

Surprisingly Ottawa, which may be the weakest team in the playoffs has a season winning 2-1 record against the Rangers so this may be a closer series than I thought. But then the Rangers had an 0-3 record against stronger Montreal, Claude Julien had a Stanley Cup victory against Alain Vigneault and look what happened. To make matters even more interesting, the off season trade between the two teams, Mika Zibanejad to the Rangers and Derick Brassard to the Senators produced significant results in the first playoff round. The leading scorers on each team during that round were (you guessed it) Zibanejad with 4 points for New York, and Brassard with 8 points for Ottawa. One other unknown element that has to be tested is the unexpected return of Clarke MacArthur to Ottawa, who made a significant contribution to beat Boston. Erik Karlsson’s health is supposed to be impaired by a heel injury but it did not seem to be a factor when he got 6 assists against Boston. The Rangers do not have a big shooter but they have based on scoring average, the best equal 4 lines in the NHL. The goaltending is very equal between Henrik Lundqvist and Craig Anderson. Ottawa has home ice advantage but less points than the Rangers. Common sense tells me to pick the Rangers but I’ll have a bit of fun this time (I can’t do much worse than the unexpected Chicago debacle) and this will be my one upset this round (I did pick the St. Louis upset correctly last round) and pick Ottawa to win in 6 or 7 games.

 
Washington Capitals Vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

All the cards are on the table for Washington now. Management added T. J. Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk the last two years to the perpetual chokers listed above. When Washington got Alexander Ovechkin the same time the Penguins got Sidney Crosby, he was billed as the equal of Crosby. That meant that when the two teams met in the playoffs, Washington would win at least 50% of the time. That meant that as the years passed, they would have equal numbers of Stanley Cup team and international team triumphs. But it is not even close. Ovechkin has a horrid playoff record with Washington and an equally horrid record internationally with Russia. It can even be argued that his Russian counterpart on Pittsburgh, Evgeni Malkin is a better player.

Washington HAS to win this series (Of course they HAD to win last year too). Oshie was supposed to put Washington over the top last year. It was not enough. Now they have added Shattenkirk this year. They HAVE to win this year or it is time to have a thorough review of the entire team and start trading these losers, including Ovechkin. Perhaps coach Barry Trotz would have to go too, but then NO COACH in the NHL or internationally has made Alexander Ovechkin a winner.

Washington’s best chance of victory is that Pittsburgh’s number one goaltender, Matt Murray is injured and Pittsburgh has to go with the erratic Marc Andre Fleury again, who between the 2009 Stanley Cup victory and the victory over Columbus in the last round gave Pittsburgh mostly horrid playoff goaltending, particularly in one series against Philadelphia which is probably the worst playoff goaltending I have ever seen since watching the playoffs in the 1960s. Washington has to do what Columbus could not do, make Fleury resemble his old horrid self. For victory, Washington has to have Fleury pulled in several games for poor performance. Washington also has to take advantage of the injury to star defenceman, Kris Letang. There has never been a better chance for Washington to defeat Pittsburgh than now. And with all the additions and subtractions made to this match, if Washington STILL cannot defeat Pittsburgh than there is no hope for this team.

But Washington is the “show me” team. They have to prove they can defeat Pittsburgh no matter how many additions and subtractions are made. Until they do so, you go with the tried and the true. Pittsburgh in 6 or 7 games.

Western Conference

St. Louis Blues Vs. Nashville Predators

This is certainly not the match I expected with Chicago’s unexpected ouster. The two underdogs of the division are meeting instead and it is a tough match to pick, especially the coaches. On one hand, there is Peter Laviolette, the coach of Nashville, who has won the big one with Carolina and has now coached the Predators to their greatest playoff victory. Then there is Mike Yeo who suffered under mediocre management in Minnesota, who somehow rallied the Blues who suffered significant talent losses in both the off season and at the trade deadline, who got the Blues into the playoffs and then beat his old team easily. Pekka Rinne is a better goaltender than Jake Allen and gives Nashville an edge at this vital position. The biggest negative for Nashville is that they have never made it to the Western Conference Final and it’s a hump to get over, but then again, the Predators had not beat the Chicago Blackhawks ever too. St. Louis, which seldom makes the third round did so last year but lost a lot of talent from that team this year. Still you’ve got to like how they have rallied around Yeo. St. Louis also has home ice advantage. I think Nashville is for real and will get to new territory for the first time and win in 6 or 7 hard fought games but it would not be surprising if the Blues continue to rally to Yeo’s coaching and won instead.

 
Anaheim Ducks Vs. Edmonton Oilers

This series is just as tough to pick as the other Western Conference match. Experienced Anaheim against newly arrived Edmonton. In their previous round, the Oilers had been playing against a team that had run out of gas and was playing bad hockey. But this time they are playing a team that pulled itself together during the last quarter of the regular season, played steady hockey when they needed to the most and then put Calgary out of the playoffs with authority in a hard-played series. The past few years, Anaheim has choked in the playoffs but then Anaheim made one significant change during the off season and got rid of the mediocre Bruce Boudreau (see above) and replaced him with their old Stanley Cup winning coach, Randy Carlyle. He is probably the main difference why Anaheim is this far. He gives the Ducks a big edge over Oilers coach Todd McLellan who has not won anything significant as an NHL head coach.

The big plus for the Oilers is Connor McDavid, projected to be Sidney Crosby’s heir on Canada’s Golden Hockey Chain (the list of Canadian players who are head and shoulders above every other active player for their generation beginning with Maurice Richard). He did not have a particularly distinguishing playoff debut but he played well enough to win in his first crack at the NHL playoffs, something not even Wayne Gretzky was able to do with the Oilers. (It took Wayne three tries before the Oilers won their first playoff round. Perhaps this is an unfair comparison.) Anaheim has nothing like him but if they want to win the Stanley Cup, they will have to learn to beat this kind of player because if they go all the way, it is likely they will be facing Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the Final. That task starts right now. McDavid will have to be everything he is projected to be for the Oilers to beat Anaheim. I don’t think he will be enough this time. Anaheim will win in 6 games but like the other Western Conference series, it would not be an upset if the Oilers won.

Minnesota Wild Have To Be Shaken Up

In my previous article, I wrote about how the Buffalo Sabres made a review of their entire organization and then shook it up after missing the playoffs for the 6th consecutive year and fired their coach and general manager. The same thing needs to be done with the Minnesota Wild. They are in a better position than the Sabres because they make the playoffs each year, but they are not going to win the Stanley Cup if the current situation continues.

A few years ago, Minnesota was like the Sabres and consistently missed the playoffs. Then General Manager Chuck Fletcher made two free agent signings, Zach Parise, and Ryan Suter. Since then, the Wild have made the playoffs each year.

Unfortunately that is as far Fletcher was prepared to go. Every year the Wild make playoffs, are able to beat a bad playoff team, or lose in the first round and nothing more. They cannot beat a true contender. Fletcher has not added any significant talent since to take the Wild to higher levels. Along with the Washington Capitals, Minnesota gets the Stanley Cup of wheel spinning, to the most mediocre team, year after year.

Evidently winning this prize along with Washington was not enough for Fletcher so he went out and hired the most mediocre playoff coach he could find, Bruce Boudreau, himself a former Capitals coach who consistently swims in such waters. Boudreau’s playoff coaching record is identical to that of Minnesota; a coach that can either beat a bad playoff team or lose in the first round. As I wrote in an article on this blog last year, it was a marriage made in heaven. Minnesota and Boudreau both deserved each other.

But this year there is an extra pang in the usual playoff defeat. This time they lost to the St. Louis Blues, an underdog team that even TRIED to help Minnesota win. First they lost significant talent during the off season from their team that went to the Western Conference Final for a rare time. Then they fired Stanley Cup winning coach Ken Hitchcock who was going to retire anyway at the end of the season (He is since unretired with Dallas). Finally they obligingly traded star defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk to give them salary cap space and concentrate on rebuilding for next year. They seemed like easy pickings for Minnesota in the first round.

Instead the Blues rallied around – and just to rub it in even more for Minnesota and Fletcher – Minnesota’s old coach, Mike Yeo, who took the team into the playoffs despite the talent losses and has now put out the Wild with an easy 5 game playoff victory. Yeo had coached the Wild for several years and watched while Fletcher and other management do nothing to improve the Wild so they could advance farther in the playoffs. Nobody really knows how good a playoff coach he really is because after Fletcher improved the Wild by signing Parise and Suter, he left Yeo with the same mediocre team year after year. This led to Yeo’s inevitable firing.

Yeo himself said the usual playoff victory things: That defeating the Wild was nothing special, that Chuck and Bruce were doing a great job. But everybody else knows the truth. It must have been extremely satisfying to beat the Wild after watching Fletcher do nothing significant to improve the team during Yeo’s tenure as coach. And Chuck and Bruce are NOT doing a great job.

It is one thing to lose to a true contender who wins the Stanley Cup like Chicago. It’s quite another to lose to a lowly, upstart team like St. Louis, that stripped itself of talent and was coached by Minnesota’s ex-coach. This defeat has been the lowest playoff blow yet, a real humiliation.

So where do the Minnesota Wild go from here? In Buffalo (perhaps envious of Toronto making the playoffs this year), the owner ripped out the heart of the organization and wants to start over again. How long are the Minnesota Wild going to continue in this wheel-spinning trend? They need significant changes. If Fletcher won’t make them, maybe the first thing to do is make a change at Fletcher’s position. There has never been a Stanley Cup for chokers but if there was, Minnesota, and its eastern counterpart, Washington would be in the Finals for the last several years. For the Wild at least, it is either change or stay the same and probably sink.

Was Toronto The Reason For Buffalo Firing Murray And Bylsma?

Buffalo became the 10th team during the current NHL season – 5 during the regular season, 5 so far during the playoffs – to fire its coach, Dan Bylsma, after only two years in a five year contract. As extra spice, Buffalo joined Los Angeles in firing its general manager, Tim Murray as well. Sabres owner, Terry Pegula, supposedly in consultation with his wife, fired both of them – just after giving Murray a contract extension earlier in the season – on Thursday after Buffalo missed the playoffs for the 6th consecutive season.

There was no warning that something like this was coming until a Buffalo radio station reported that star player, Jack Eichel would not sign a contract extension if Bylsma remained as coach. Eichel denied the story and seemed apologetic in his explanation. He certainly did not express any animosity to Bylsma and Murray. So were there other factors at work?

It could be argued that Bylsma has slipped as a coach since winning the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009. Things went downhill from there (a lot could be accounted for by Marc Andre Fleury’s bad playoff goaltending), Bylsma got fired, and was hired by Murray for Buffalo. In his first season, the Sabres improved by 27 points, though that was still not enough to make the playoffs, and then they regressed a little this season. Bylsma was not helped that Eichel missed a significant amount of the season due to injury.

As for Murray, Pegula would later state that he was only a first time general manager and therefore lacked experience. He has proclaimed that Buffalo’s next general manager will have extensive experience at the NHL level. Buffalo never made the playoffs during Murray’s four year tenure. Still, Murray was responsible for drafting Eichel. If Buffalo drafted another good player for next year and made an astute trade or free agent signing in the coming off season, there is no reason to believe that the Sabres could not continue their climb upwards to a playoff position.

But perhaps Pegula was watching what was going on across Lake Ontario in Toronto. After the horrid ownership of the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund, the Maple Leafs cleared the decks. First, new president Brendan Shanahan hired probably the current top coach in the NHL, Mike Babcock and then followed that up by hiring a proven, Stanley Cup winning general manager, Lou Lamoriello. Lamoriello then selected Auston Matthews with the overall number one draft pick and watched his Maple Leafs become one of the biggest surprises of the current season, making the playoffs after being last overall last year.

Pegula might have been envious, believing that his Sabres should be where the Maple Leafs currently are, and lost patience. After missing the playoffs for the 6th consecutive time and drafting Eichel the previous season, he noted the difference in progress and felt that the Sabres were just spinning their wheels under the current management. Considering that Bylsma’s contract was still in its early years and that he had granted Murray an extension only a few months earlier, this change is especially financially costly.

Four of Buffalo’s closest rivals from the old division days, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Boston made the playoffs this year while Buffalo got left behind. That might have grated on Pegula who might have seen Buffalo’s lack of progress to be a direct reflection of his ownership and would subject him to media attack and fan dislike. So he has taken a chance and made a significant change in direction. He had better be right. If his new combination does not improve the Sabres and they continue to miss the playoffs, all he has to do is look in the mirror and find the answer as to why.

Undeserved End For Inglorious Blue Jackets

Nobody expected the Columbus Blue Jackets to make the playoffs. They were the biggest surprise of the 2016-17 NHL regular season. They over-achieved and finished with the third best record in the Eastern Conference.

But their reward was to face the team with the second best record, the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, certainly the team to beat in the east, if not the favorite to win it all again for the second straight year. They were probably the worst team the Blue Jackets could have drawn in the first round of the playoffs. Even playing first-place choker, Washington would have been better.

Actually this should not be an issue at all. Indeed, this article should not have to be written. Everybody should be proud of the Blue Jackets, giving their fans the finest season in the franchise history which included a near-NHL record of 16 straight wins, making the playoffs, and then winning a game in the first round against the team that is probably the favorite to win this year’s Stanley Cup tournament. But it’s not enough.

The Blue Jackets play in probably the strangest area for NHL professional hockey in North America, Ohio-Indiana, close to the Canadian border where hockey should be a hotbed. Instead mysteriously, top level hockey is very unpopular in this region and nobody has ever been able to explain why. In my articles, I refer to the region as the “Death Valley” of top level professional hockey. Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis are failed NHL-WHA franchises. Not even Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier could save hockey in this region when they played for the various defunct teams. Columbus is simply the best and longest surviving NHL team.

So the pressure was on the Blue Jackets to win this playoff round, not because it was Pittsburgh, not because it meant progress for the team, but to convince the Ohio-Indiana sports fan to support the franchise. Ever since the founding of this team in 2000, it has been a precarious franchise. In many of its seasons, the team has lost money. Gimmicks and low ticket prices have been used to attract fans. During many of its seasons, there have been rumors of it being folded or moved to another city.

Its history is inglorious. The Blue Jackets have only made the playoffs three times in 17 years and have yet to win a playoff round. Their playoff record is now 3-12. That record is not going to pack them in. I don’t care if their opponent was the Pittsburgh Penguins, the likely Stanley Cup winner. Columbus HAD to win that series.

Sure the Blue Jackets had their best season ever and sure the Blue Jackets nearly broke the NHL record for consecutive wins. The Ohio-Indiana fan is going to smile and be proud, but they won’t be convinced and believe in this team unless they see progress in the playoffs where it really counts. A playoff victory over somebody is the symbol of that progress or lack of progress. Instead the Blue Jackets drew the worst opponent that they and the NHL could have wanted. For this year at least, the NHL has to rue the playoff format that they had set up. Calgary can be swept in four games by Anaheim but that’s okay. The fans are going to be pleased with the progress made and come back next year. Not so in Columbus.

In my prediction article, I wrote that Columbus would have been better off if Pittsburgh’s goaltender Matt Murray had been injured instead of defenseman Kris Letang, because Pittsburgh would have been forced to play the erratic Marc Andre Fleury. But Pittsburgh played without Letang AND Murray and still won easily. Columbus made Fleury look better than he really is. They are far from being a true contender. That is not going impress Ohio-Indiana fans.

Columbus is mostly a team of no-names who played good, dependable hockey this year. They have few star players to attract crowds. And next year, it is quite conceivable that they won’t make the playoffs again. Pittsburgh, Washington, New York Rangers and Montreal are still around. Toronto, Ottawa, and Boston all improved. It is quite conceivable that Philadelphia, New York Islanders, Florida, Carolina and possibly Buffalo will be good enough to make the playoffs next year if they draft and trade well in the off season. It will be very difficult for Columbus to replicate this year’s success.

By losing so ingloriously to Pittsburgh (even if they do win the Stanley Cup) in the first round of the playoffs, Columbus will probably lose most of the attendance gains they made this year. They needed to make believers out of people in a region where hockey is unpopular, but this playoff episode did more harm than good. The NHL has been praying for this franchise to turn around but they got the worst playoff pairing that was possible. The shadow of Quebec, Hamilton, Hartford or wherever still hangs over this franchise. A sad ending for a team that deserved better this season.

NFL No Model For The NHL – Or Anybody Else

This is supposed to be a blog about hockey, but I cannot refrain from commenting on the recent actions of the NHL’s sister professional North American sports league, the NFL which continues to exhibit sheer cold-blooded ruthlessness which ought to make every sports fan around the world – never mind in just North America and never mind if they are hockey, soccer, baseball, basketball or some other sport fans – shiver with horror. Everybody has complaints about NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, real or mythical, but compared to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Bettman, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, and MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred have halos over their heads.

In just two years, the NFL has stripped three “traditional” franchises from their cities, not because of poor fan support, not because their playing facility was particularly odious, but because they can get a “better deal” elsewhere. So much for loyal fan support, so much for extensive local media coverage, so much for local corporate support, so much for local taxpayer dollars being used to fund stadium construction; if all that gets in the way, it gets swept aside without a blink of the eye or a stirring of regret. The Los Angeles Rams are at least traditional, but the Los Angeles Chargers and the Las Vegas Raiders? Ugh!

The problem is the sheer mindless, fanatical hold that professional football has on its fans. Since the rise of the NFL in the 1960s when it overtook baseball as America’s number one sport, the NFL can get away with things that the NHL, MLB, and the NBA can only gape at and dream of. Name any other league where the sheer number of franchise shifts for reasons other than poor fan support or an outmoded facility occurs. Cleveland, Baltimore, Houston, now St. Louis (twice), Oakland (twice), and San Diego have been shifted causing immense pain to local fans.

No, I haven’t forgotten or left out Los Angeles, but Los Angeles is a unique case. Los Angeles is the only city to stand up to the NFL and not give in to blackmail about building new stadiums and other perks, etc., and bow down to the league like the others did. In Los Angeles, the movie star, not the sports athlete is king and queen, so when the Rams and Raiders left in the 1990s, Los Angeles merely yawned, put up its feet and was quite content to live without NFL football for 20 years. The NFL never forgot and forgave this humiliation, that its second largest market had shut them out and ignored them.

That makes the shift of the Chargers and the Rams even more disgraceful. Los Angeles certainly was not down on its knees begging for the NFL to come back. But Los Angeles is a much bigger market than “small city” St. Louis and San Diego and the NFL was determined to wipe out the humiliation of not having even one team in its second largest market, so they had to go. Football loving St. Louis and San Diego lost their teams to a city that could not care less. Oakland and St. Louis had traditions of winning the Super Bowl. None of this matters.

Now contrast that with the NHL where Gary Bettman struggles to keep the Arizona Coyotes going, when he opened the door in 2010, for Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford to come back by offering reasonable conditions (no mention of a $500 million expansion fee then), and with the NBA making an unofficial promise to Seattle to bring back the Supersonics if they can solve their arena problem. And MLB has had talks about starting the Expos in Montreal again.

Even more shameful is that none of this had to happen. All the NFL had to do was make a commitment to expanding the league to the next symmetrical number of 40 – divisions with 5 teams in them instead of 4 – and there would be no need to strip any city of its franchise. There are plenty of candidates – there are approximately 60 large metropolitan areas in Canada and the United States so every league is only a fraction of the size it could be. Certainly by inviting back Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford, adding Las Vegas, and considering Seattle and several other cities, the NHL showed it is prepared to move past the 32 team barrier and go for 40 teams. In fact, before the Mortgage Meltdown, it seemed inevitable that all four professional sports leagues were heading to 40 at the minimum.

But expansion was never considered as an option by the NFL. Long before the Chargers and Rams were shifted, there were several websites on the Internet listing cities whose teams could be moved to Los Angeles. Certainly Buffalo, Minnesota, Jacksonville as well as the three victims were on the list. That ought to make the fans in those cities feel good about how much the NFL loves them and appreciates their support, and about how precarious their situation really is. If they don’t build new stadiums with other perks when requested… it’s goodbye NFL to some to some other place that will. No other league in North America is so ruthless.

One other consequence of the NFL’s policy of relocation instead of expansion is that there is now a huge backlog of cities who would like to be part of the next 8 expansion teams to 40, and you can bet that many of these cities are ready to capitulate on even the most ridiculously excessive of the NFL’s terms. These cities could have been enjoying NFL football long ago, except for the NFL’s obsession with Los Angeles and its determination not to expand beyond 32 teams. San Antonio, Portland, Toronto, Montreal, Birmingham, Salt Lake City, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, Mexico City and faraway London, now to be joined by Oakland, St. Louis, and San Diego have been mentioned at various times. But the NFL ignored and shut them out. Los Angeles had to be resolved one way or another.

But the NFL’s arrogance does not stop with the shifting of franchises. It was the NFL, specifically the Dallas Cowboys, who started to take the game away from the “common fan” and burden city taxpayers. In 1971, by building Texas Stadium with the new idea of adding “luxury boxes” and other perky seating, the NFL introduced the “European” and “Asian” traditional social structure of “classes” into supposedly “equal” America. From then on new stadiums and arenas had to built with privileged seating in order to meet expenses and increase revenue – usually at taxpayer expense. The cost to build them soared. Also added would be pay tv, higher ticket prices and expensive merchandise that would cost more because it had an NFL sports logo on it. Football and other professional sports have been steadily moving into the exclusive domain of the rich. During the Obama administration, 45 million Americans (and uncounted Canadians) have been unofficially labeled as “poor”. They can never hope to enter the sports palaces that in many cases their tax dollars helped to build.

And I also have to remind my readers of the NFL’s hatred of foreigners, which I have written about in articles on this blog and others. Too many times I have mentioned the excessive price of tickets in Toronto when the Buffalo Bills played some of their games there. The Toronto games never came close to selling out. The gouging of “inferior”, “ignorant” Canadians so “privileged” to watch superior NFL football instead of the inferior CFL kind made even the most fanatical Toronto NFL fan check his wallet.

And the NFL showed “stuffy” Britain that it could be just as snobby as any member of the upper class nobility. For their British games, the NFL usually selects a match between the worst teams in the league that have no chance of selling out and ships the game to football-starved London. Last year the British fans started to notice what was going on and protested against the obvious arrogance. That’s a great way to increase the growth of football around the world. That’s a great way to dispel the image of the “ugly American”.

If Americans could somehow find ways to rid themselves of their football obsession, the NFL would not get away with the arrogant things it does. They would be forced to have to sell their product like everybody else instead of shrugging their shoulders and assuming a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. There’s talk about the CFL moving into these abandoned markets. It’s fanciful but I doubt if the CFL with its own precarious markets wants to make an enemy out of the powerful NFL and its cold-blooded ruthlessness.

At least the NHL, NBA, and MLB have not reached these low depths – yet. The NFL’s arrogance should make every hockey fan around the world shiver and be glad that the NHL still has what little consideration for its fans left. Former Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower used to warn Americans about the danger of the “military-industrial complex” getting out of hand. To which they should add the “sports complex” called the NFL that shows little care for anybody no matter how loyal a fan they may be.